Last month, on the eve of the Chinese Premier’s visit to Britain, the press brought up issues of human rights in that country focusing particularly on how dissenters were persecuted and incarcerated by the authorities in China. It was pointed out by various people in various discussions that the Chinese state was not being very nice to dissenters.
But surely the same can be said for the state behaviour in the western powers generally and the US in particular? Of course you can argue that most developed, democratic countries have strong legal protections and safeguards to ensure the state does not ride rough shod over those who raise their voices against the Establishment, but the reality is somewhat different.
Look at the case of Edward Snowden, the IT specialist working for the NSA (National Security Agency), who leaked material that revealed that the NSA was maintaining several mass-surveillance programmes of its own citizens. This included accessing information stored by tech companies and intercepting data from internet networks. The 29-year-old revealed the shocking extent of the government’s surveillance activities because he figured it was in the public interest. But the US has not treated him much more kindly than the China would treat its dissenters.
Fine, Snowden may not be dead yet, but he was forced to find refuge in Russia, and he continues to be vilified by the US government. The US Secretary of State John Kerry told MSNBC last year “Edward Snowden is… a traitor. And he has betrayed his country”. At that time Kerry advised Snowden to not be a coward and to “man up” and return to the US and submit to the American system of justice. It sounds reasonable but it has been made very clear that all Snowden can look forward to back in the States would be life imprisonment, de facto he has already been declared a traitor no matter what the legal niceties would be.
Snowden’s revelations were not just about the NSA spying on American citizens — they included claims that the NSA led more than 61,000 hacking operations worldwide, including in Hong Kong and China and that it also spied on EU offices in the US and Europe and monitored the phones of 35 world leaders and bugged various European allies….
So, is Edward Snowden a whistleblower or a traitor? A defender of human liberties or a dastardly coward?
I highly recommend that you watch Laura Poitras’ documentary about Snowden and the NSA revelations, Citizen Four, before you mull over these questions. The film is chilling: you realise how naive we all are about the extent to which surveillance has been taken with modern technology.
Then think too of Wikileaks: the group that released classified documents about, among other things, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and secret files about detentions in Guantanamo. These classified items included the footage of various US military strikes including the ‘collateral damage’ helicopter strike in Baghdad, which killed over a dozen people, which was provided by a young soldier Bradley Manning. Manning was much vilified, tried and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The man spearheading Wikileaks, Julian Assange is in different sort of incarceration: since June 2012 he has been in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he sought asylum after having been accused in various rape cases which his supporters claim were trumped up by the authorities to both smear and indict him.
The manner in which these whistleblowers have been treated is according to The Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill, clear evidence of the US government being at war with journalists, of trying to criminalise journalism. The shocking material that Assange and Manning helped to reveal is now overshadowed by lurid tales about their personal lives. Daniel Ellsberg (of The Pentagon Papers fame) called Manning a ‘hero’, Scahill calls such people who are fighting for civil liberties ‘freedom fighters’.
But to our modern surveillance state they are traitors…
Truly, this is a war.